Well my Dad used to tell me that anybody who ever became somebody got laid off at some point.
— The State Trooper who pulled me over in West Texas because I’d gotten my Xterra so caked in mud that it obscured my plates. I think he decided I wasn’t likely to make trouble when all he saw in the back was a copy of product management bible Inspired: How to Create Tech Product Customers Love sitting on my rolled out sleeping bag next to a pile of dirty clothes and a week’s worth of Clif Bars.
Having spent the last three weeks ramping up as a new Product Manager at Very, I’m looking back over my time off. A lot happened over the last three months that spanned my notice period, unemployment, and the early weeks of re-learning how to answer to an alarm clock. At the beginning, a friend told me:
Keep a journal for two reasons. First, you will lose track of what day it is and have no idea what you did all week if you don’t write it down. Also, writing it down will help motivate you to not have too many empty days.
Both decidedly true. I strongly encourage doing this.
The last time I looked for work was 2012. As I ramped up, I realized my local professional network is not large, likely stemming from a long tenure at a distributed company and being an Austin native. I know a million people here, but mostly not through professional channels. So I found a few relevant meetups.
Going to events was even more helpful than it was awkward. I highly recommend it, though I would lean more toward networking and peer groups than job fairs. I also reached out to personal connections, many of whom I know to be well networked. It was comforting how much smaller the world suddenly seemed.
I found, though did not attend all of:
- Product in Austin, who organize the Product in Austin Slack
- ProductCamp Austin, which I attended in February 2020 and loved. Blog post forthcoming.
- Austin Developing Product Managers
- The Product League
- Product Austin
- Agile Austin
- Kickass PM (Project Management)
These groups have committed to start overlapping some of their events and more clearly differentiating their primary focuses. Also all of this is Austin, but Meetup.com has listings for groups everywhere.
Keeping notes left me with interesting data. Inspired by a post Interviewing 201: Lessons from seven months of interviewing by Kellen Freeman, I too made a Sankey diagram.
He wrote a series of posts about his search — they’re all great reads (part 1, part 2, and especially part 3 on “manufacturing luck” and acknowledging privilege). My observations hit on a lot of his takeaways, notably:
- If the first interaction with a company was submitting to their Applicant Tracking System (“ATS”), it was probably already over. Only one of my cold-call applications led to a phone screen.
- Referrals were key to securing a phone screen, but interviews were not guaranteed — and even with referrals, employers still ghosted.
- A super-crowded market lead to impersonal touches.
- I didn’t have much success with recruiters either, though I did have a few conversations. Usually, the positions weren’t a good fit or the recruiter withheld identifying details on their client but then failed to make a good sales pitch on the lead. Honorable mention goes to a burger joint in Hallettsville who tried to recruit me as their General Manager.
- Researching the screeners and interviewers helped make an “interview” feel more like a regular conversation with context for their questions.
- Even out the pipeline. I applied in big waves, which created a flurry of work all at once followed by a lull of waiting or disappointment. That made it draining to prep for the next “wave” of applications.
- It helped me to evaluate my runway. Before I mapped out what my timeline needed to be, I rushed the process and reached out to a few “emergency parachute” referrals that in hindsight, I may not have had I not panicked.
- Seeing recruiters complain on LinkedIn about ghosting applicants was really frustrating as the employers kept ghosting on my colleagues and me.
- Sometimes weird stuff happens between good applicants and otherwise good companies. See the last flow in the diagram — I told that story to some friends who encouraged me to brush it off, taking some measure of comfort that weirdness happens sometimes.
- If you have an internal referral, don’t apply through the system until after your referral has started the process on their end, if there is one.
- Beyond “mock interviews,” talk about interview and work topics with peers, folks less senior than you, and adjacent roles — so that you can speak to these things with various audiences. No interviewers provided any feedback, either directly by citing HR policy or indirectly by ignoring my request.
- Even folks you haven’t kept in close touch with are often more than willing to help if you ask, more so if you do the leg work — identify the position, highlight the experience, figure out which introduction — ask for something specific.
- Interviewers loved hearing about curiosity, framed with storytelling, around the answer to “Why apply to this role?” or “Why are you leaving your current role?”. They responded best to stories that boiled down to “I can grow in this opportunity and here on this team.” Conversely, trying to get ahead of a lay-off may be an honest answer but it is not a sellable story. Both can be true.
For anyone keeping score, my new job’s flow was “Somebody knew somebody who offered to float my resume.” And I owe a lot of my confidence going into the interview to a group of 8 people who I met at the grocery.
“50 Ways to Get a Job”
A mentor introduced me to another meetup — the newly formed Austin Product Job Club. At the first gathering, over 100 of us were divided into small groups to meet weekly around town. I joined the “Downtown Whole Foods” posse.
It was fascinating. We were each applying to similar roles, often to the same companies. And with the multitude of folks who showed up to Sorting Hat Night, I was intimidated when I realized we are all applying to all of the same posts. There was an awkwardness to it, but everyone in my group leaned in. We all had our eyes set on different definitions of “the right fit” so it never felt competitive. Those were rewarding conversations and great connections.
For the first 4-6 weeks, we book-clubbed Dev Aujla’s 50 Ways to Get a Job. It’s a holistic view of the job search, offering meditations and unexpected quests alongside more tactical exercises. I recommend this to anyone in transition regardless of field, and I encourage buying the paperback to use as a workbook — in a group setting if possible, but solo if not.
We didn’t do every exercise; several seemed inaccessible or a bit “out there.” But I margin scribbles all over:
- Map your career path — to find themes, strengths, and direction
- Find a friend in the same situation — easy…
- Update your LinkedIn profile as your future self — or ponder how you might
- Write the job description for your dream job — this helped pick out themes and a checklist to evaluate opportunities
- Reconnect with five mentors from your past.
- Make a list of your skills — to build an inventory and bubble up skills that feel like they bring contentment to work.
- Commit to doing These Four Things when you feel overwhelmed.
- Go on a solo trip — this one solicited the most laughs and eye-rolls for the blatant privilege implied, but I submit my Instagram feed as proof of having given it a shot… Including, yes, the aforementioned solo trip to Big Bend (he let me off with a warning and the tale of his transition from web development to law enforcement).
After the first month, our conversations focused less on book exercises than progress updates, networking aid, interview retros, and facets of the work. However, having a book of helpful “things to do that are not applications” with an optimistic “self-help book” voice was great for attitude.
Our group got a lot of benefit from the momentum of meeting every week starting immediately after the big sorting hat night. If you join PJC, push for that. If you are starting a job seekers group on your own: that’s my #1 recommendation for a successful group. Followed by: have a Slack channel or group chat.
“Go to a Job Board and then Leave.”
[…] Although this seems counterintuitive, only 3 percent of all jobs are found by applying through a job board, so you may as well invest your time doing something else. The biggest unforeseen cost to beginning the lengthy process of applying on job boards is the emotional dive you take when you send applications out into the unknown only to hear nothing in response.
No matter how qualified you are, the lack of a response can make you question your skills and feel like the work you have put in up to this point has not been worth it. This is not true. […] Blame it on the job board.
That said, these helped me find options to look into:
- ProductHired — product management, marketing, and design roles, often in finance and tech hubs
- Built in Austin — Austin jobs in tech and local startups
- FlexJobs — remote opportunities everywhere, paid membership required
- Indeed and LinkedIn have the most listings by far but also the highest percentage of employers who don’t follow-up one way or another.
The Reading List
These were recommended along the way:
- 50 Ways to Get a Job: An Unconventional Guide to Finding Work on Your Terms, Dev Aujla.
- Inspired: How to Create Tech Product Customers Love, Marty Cagan
- The Unicorn Project: A Novel about Developers, Digital Disruption, and Thriving in the Age of Data, Gene Kim
- The First 90 Days: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter, Michael D. Watkins
- Art of Agile Development, James Shore & Shane Warden. (A section of this is required reading for new PMs at Very.)
And if that’s not enough, these two links dropped in the PJC chat:
So what of the journal?
Well, you’re reading it. At least, as much of it as I recorded. I wanted to “pay forward” the resources and tips I collected in this process and mix in entertaining bits of the story.
Accepting the offer, an unexpected tragedy, and Christmas all hit at the same time. In the ensuing commotion, my dedication to the process fizzled. Later, I realized my “list of stuff that happened and checkboxes of stuff that needs doing” is awfully reminiscent of a Bullet Journal.
I’ve rebooted the “Funemployment Diary” into a New Year’s Experiment: using a Bullet Journal. I’ve written before about Notion for project and work notes, which I did use for the diary and continue to use for everything else. But I have long had trouble making routine use of to-do list applications despite Todoist being an exceptionally good one.
So while I’m still in “say yes to everything” mode: as recommended by both a former colleague and a PJC sponsor, I’ve continued my efforts to list life on paper in bullet form. I’m giving it a trial run in Q1, but so far it has helped with productivity and keeping track of things until they are done or intentionally discarded.
My handwriting leaves much to be desired.
There was a lot of goofing off, too. And to Aujla’s credit, the 5,000 miles I covered in December did offer a lot of time to think about what’s next and find insights in unexpected places.
- A Halloween climbing trip to Red Rock Canyon outside Las Vegas.
- Jen Dary’s training “So Now You’re A Manager” for rising leaders. A great opportunity to zoom out, think about manager vs. individual contributor roles, learn useful communication and coaching strategies, and talk to peers at other companies about opportunities.
- A group of barbarians headed to the Texas Renaissance Fair invited me to join because I’d never been.
- My last week of work was spent house/cat-sitting. Amusing photos ensued. If you work from home, don’t work your last day at your home office if you have the option. I had not anticipated how much I would value closing down a seven-year tenure in someone else’s living room.
- Family time and Thanksgiving at my uncle’s ranch.
- Freed my cousin’s pickup from a riverbed.
- Got my hand chewed up by a dog, resulting in my first trip to an ER and learning to drive stick with my pinky.
- The solo run to Big Bend, including: the overland Pinto Canyon Road that I read about in Texas Monthly, a personal record for longest hike to the highest point in the park (Emory Peak), camping in the back of my car at various campgrounds, and a replacement self-portrait in Ernst Tinaja for use on social/professional profiles.
- Procured the domain tsmith.com to transition from tsmithcreative.com because I’ve received feedback that “creative” in that context reads as “I’m a graphic designer in advertising.”
- Recommended by an ADPM organizer, I started an accounts/projects list stretching back to my earliest freelance clients through all three agencies so I can start building what she called an “Accomplishments List.”
- Three separate Friendsgiving home-cooked group dinners.
- Replaced the radiator in my ‘88 pickup and lift gate struts on the Xterra.
- Rewired two of my mother’s table lamps with blown sockets.
- Wrote a project plan for the upcoming website rebuild for Zilker Theatre Productions.
- Many afternoons of climbing in Austin, with my first leads on 5.10c “Monfi”, 5.10d “Carnival”, and 5.11a “Vanilla Sky.” None of which went well, but are all new projects to tackle this year.
- Nintendo Switch reports that I played about 60 hours of video games, mostly Stardew Valley and the long awaited Kentucky Route Zero.
- Started going to a mostly-weekly board game night.
- Saw Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker on opening weekend. I loved it.
- Built lots of IKEA while watching the original Star Wars trilogiy. Also loved it.
- And to bookend the break, another car-camping overland roadtrip — this time with friends, also both soon to start new jobs — to New Mexico to ring in 2020.
This brings me to Very. I reached out to a lot of folks over the last few months, and I can confirm — y’all are the best. I’m grateful for all of you who helped me, kept me company, recommended me, checked in on me, chatted work stuff, made me dinner, bought me a beer, and pushed me to keep up the momentum. My thanks to my family, so many friends, colleagues, the climbers of GLAM and HC, the cohort of SNYAM 11, the members and organizers of Austin Product Job Club and our Downtown Group, fellow Board and co-Producers of Zilker Theatre Productions, TU and SAS alumni, current and former Web Chefs, the Veryians, Officer Stanton, and everyone else along the road.